It should have been a dream assignment. Madeline Ostrander, a freelance writer, had sold her first big feature to a high-profile magazine. But while she was reporting at a remote field site, her mother was diagnosed with cancer.
Unaware of the situation, her editors set a call for the same day as her mother’s surgery. Ostrander didn’t try to reschedule; she expected the meeting to be a straightforward discussion of what she’d found on the ground. Instead, it felt like an interrogation. Shaken, she reached out afterward to inform the story’s primary editor of her mother’s illness.
But after she turned in the draft, the next call was even more adversarial. The editor “made it sound like I was falling down on the job,” she says now. “I went to the end of the earth for this story, and I wasn’t extended generosity while this was going on. And not only that, but I was treated with suspicion.”
When a personal health crisis piled on, Ostrander didn’t feel safe sharing it. She also couldn’t afford to endanger the opportunity, or the pay. She pushed through instead of taking the time she needed to cope. “It was one of the more traumatic experiences of my life,” she says. After the story ran, it took months to recover her motivation. She hasn’t written for the magazine since.
Ostrander measures her ordeal against a time when, as senior editor at Yes! magazine, she was hospitalized, and her coworkers, quietly and unasked, took on her workload until she recovered.
Writing is an emotionally vulnerable act. Creating good stories requires editors to be partners in the process, and to cultivate trust—by treating writers not only as professional colleagues, but also as human beings. When care is absent during a crisis, that trust evaporates. And with editors in control of assignments, a power dynamic can emerge that will be familiar to many freelancers: the writer suffers politely while the editor—sometimes oblivious, sometimes not—tramples them.
MEDIA OUTLETS overwhelmingly depend on freelance writers to fill their pages. Most of us who choose to freelance accept that it doesn’t come with the built-in institutional benefits—a monthly paycheck, health insurance, office space—that staffers enjoy. But beyond these differences in stability, freelance writers often aren’t accorded basic respect, compassion, or fair treatment.
I used to be a staff editor, and I still edit occasionally on a freelance basis. Though my salary was reliable and my health benefits were solid, I didn’t make much money, so it rarely occurred to me that my position was more secure than that of the freelance writers I worked with. Sometimes, deep into an edit, asking for a difficult revision, I did grasp the difference, and guilt would creep in that I was guaranteed enough money to pay my bills while the writer’s work expanded without a change in rate. The guilt made me better: I worked hard to listen and be clear about my expectations. But it wasn’t until I began freelance writing that I really understood the power gap.
The context in which we all operate is brutal. “The power imbalance comes from a precarious employment arrangement, or a lack of employment arrangement,” says Nicole Cohen, author of Writers’ Rights: Freelance Journalism in a Digital Age. Without the regulations and standards of behavior that shape formal employment, it’s easier to treat people badly, even when that’s not the intention.
Editors, too, are often overworked, undercompensated, and undervalued. “I can’t respond thoughtfully to every email I get. I would have to spend my entire day doing that,” says an editor and former freelancer who spoke on condition of anonymity. As a junior member of her department, she gets saddled with projects that delay her editing work, and she—and by extension her writers—is subject to the whims of those above her in the masthead hierarchy.
Still, editors and writers operate under different implicit standards of conduct. A writer is accountable to an editor not only to file good copy on deadline, but to be courteous, efficient, responsive, and available. Freelancers usually refrain from behaviors that could be perceived as “difficult” for fear of being passed over for work. “Many of us may feel like we’re secretly competing for the title of easiest writer to work with,” says Jonny Auping, a freelance writer.
An editor, meanwhile, is accountable to her employer: the publication. “There’s a widespread culture that treats freelancers as disposable,” says Jon Dale Shadel, an editorial strategist and freelance writer. While deadlines for writers are specified in contracts and informal agreements, it’s common for editors to give no solid indication of when to expect edits. That makes it difficult for writers to plan and can disrupt their other professional projects—and their lives. One writer told me her editor sat on a draft for six months, then demanded a twenty-four-hour turnaround on revisions; another informed her editor of dates for international travel during which she wouldn’t be available, only to receive two sets of rush-turnaround edits during that time.
Professional courtesy isn’t a frivolous demand; its absence has real consequences for a writer’s financial and personal well-being. Dozens of writers told me they commonly experience poor communication from editors, including lengthy undisclosed delays and ghosting. Stories may be in progress for months, and since many outlets initiate payment processes only upon publication, all of these problems have the same impact, as one freelancer told me: “delaying the point at which I’ll actually get paid.” Some writers had unpaid invoices totaling more than $10,000, or carried credit card debt, or struggled to pay their utility bills and rent.
The impacts are emotional, too, as in Ostrander’s case. Some writers told me about anxiety and depression triggered by difficult editorial interactions. “Lately writing has felt like an abusive relationship,” says Monica Prelle, a freelance writer. “Silence and long waits on responses from editors is demoralizing. I feel unvalued.”
THE NOVEL CORONAVIRUS sweeping the globe has made the media industry even more precarious. Publications have tabled stories in order to focus on the pandemic. Field reporting is impossible. Some outlets have paused or reduced their freelance budgets or folded outright. Times are tough for staff editors, but they’re even tougher for freelance writers. How can editors help? Now, as ever, by striving for fairness—and kindness. Before the crisis, the editor I spoke with successfully advocated to raise Web rates at her publication. In addition, she goes to bat to give writers more money when circumstances warrant, such as when a deadline is moved up suddenly. “We need to pay for more than the direct return on investment,” she explains. “We’re also supporting careers. We want people to keep writing for us.”
That’s a good example of what Shadel would call a “right now” fix to address the power imbalance. “Editors tend to view themselves as advocates of readers and stewards of their publication,” Shadel says. But “they don’t necessarily see themselves as advocates for writers. The good ones see themselves that way.”
Simple things like acknowledging emails go a long way toward making writers feel valued, in addition to being transparent about what writers can expect from the editing, scheduling, and payment processes. But being an advocate for writers should also include fighting for prompt payment, up-front reimbursement of expenses, higher fees when a story’s scope expands beyond the original assignment, and kill fees that scale up as the writer’s investment of labor increases.
Pacing pay out over time should be a common practice, too. One approach is contracts that pay out monthly for a fixed number of words per year. Another is paying advances on big stories. Wudan Yan, an independent journalist, worked out a deal with a publication to pay her a feature fee in installments over the course of the editing process. At the very least, editors can push their publications to pay kill fees upon receipt of the first draft, since they’re on the hook for that money anyway. “I think partial payment will help everyone,” Yan says; it ensures writers aren’t the only ones with financial skin in the game from the start.
Haley Mlotek, a founding member of the Freelance Solidarity Project (FSP), says that payment of kill fees on receipt of the first draft and other practices that seem “remarkable by today’s standards” used to be the norm. Publications incorporated them through letters of agreement—arrangements supplementary to contracts that broadly defined parameters of writers’ work. Under the umbrella of the National Writers Union, the FSP is looking to that model again as it works to improve standards for freelancers.
Writers also need to advocate for themselves and their work as much as they’re able. “It’s not just staffers who have to manage up, it’s freelancers too,” says independent journalist Tatiana Walk-Morris, creator of the Freelance Beat blog. That might seem obvious, but many writers don’t feel comfortable. As an editor, I offer them this: most of us who edit began doing so without formal training; we learned on the job. Twelve years in, writers have been some of my very best editing teachers. Tell me what you need from me; tell me when you have extenuating circumstances; tell me, especially, when I get it wrong.
Editing is, first and foremost, a relationship. If “there’s a dynamic where a person only wants one thing from me, and they want it when they want it, that’s not a relationship,” says Tristan Ahtone, editor in chief of the Texas Observer. “An editor worth their salt is going to be paying attention to what someone can or can’t do, their time, and their schedule.” A good editor also works collaboratively, Ahtone continues. “I ask toward the end: Does this feel like your work, does this feel like your voice, does this feel like you?”
As for Madeline Ostrander, she sees her own experience as “a lesson in compassion.” Editors need to consider how vulnerable freelancers are, she says. “You’re going to keep coming back to those editors who are kind to you and who support you, and treat you like a professional.”